A View From Studio 3: Gwynn defined true star
Hall of Famer put up career statistics that don't seem real
It was stuck to the wall with Fun-Tak, a gummy-like substance popular in the 1980s that we used to hang posters without damaging them with thumbtacks. The poster featured Tony Gwynn in action. Not a photograph of Gwynn but a drawing that detailed his hitting mechanics. Perfect hitting mechanics. Above his likeness was the title "The Hitting Machine." The poster was perfectly placed above the bed.
As a teenager in the 1980s, there were only a few hitters who could get a loyal Mets fans to root for a different club. Gwynn was one of them. In the days long before Internet access, MLB Network and smartphones, the chances to catch a glimpse of the game's greats were few and far between. Think about it: If the Padres weren't playing the Mets at Shea, you'd have to catch him in a rare appearance on "Game of the Week" or follow Gwynn in the box scores. Playing for a West Coast team, that meant in many instances waiting for the evening newspaper the following day to see how he fared. More often than not, crooked numbers appeared next to his name.
Everyone off the street could imitate their favorite player. In the '70s, it was Joe Morgan's arm pump and Willie Stargell's bat whirl. In the '80s, it was Darryl Strawberry's fantastic finish and Tony Gwynn's perfect, easy stroke to the opposite field. If you hit a line drive that stayed inside the maple tree two houses down, you were guaranteed a double. Little did we know at the time that Gwynn would record more than 500 doubles in a 20-year career en route to becoming one of the greatest pure hitters to ever walk the planet. Little did we know that five years after his playing career was over, he'd receive 97.6 percent of the Hall of Fame vote and be enshrined in Cooperstown.
To be perfectly honest, his statistics are so good they don't seem real -- numbers you'd see in a video game or perhaps a stickball game. The lifetime .338 average is the second-highest lifetime average for any player who started his career in 1939 or later. The only player with a higher lifetime average in that time frame was Ted Williams. Considered the best hitter in history, Williams befriended Gwynn more than two decades ago. Gywnn said years back that he hoped one day people would talk about him the way we talk about Williams. We are and have been for a long time. That talk will continue for as long as baseball is played.
Try this. Gywnn hit .300 in 19 consecutive seasons. Nineteen! How about this one? Gwynn never stuck out more than 40 times in a single season. Think about that. He fanned a total of 434 times in 20 years. There are players in the game today who strike out close to 200 times per season and are still considered stars. Perhaps we need to stop throwing around the word "star" so liberally. Gwynn's passing should help us rediscover the true meaning of the word.
In many ways, Gwynn was an under-the-radar star, having played in a small media market and on many losing teams. His career also coincided with the steroids era, but he wasn't a home run hitter, per se, so many of his accomplishments didn't garner the same headlines as the guys who routinely hit 30, 40 or 50 homers per season.
That makes his career even more impressive. He stayed the course at a time when the masses fell in love with cartoonish power and statistics. Turns out Gwynn's numbers are the ones that will stand the test of time. While Gwynn was destroying some of the game's great pitchers, he was also changing the way players around the world fine-tuned their games. He was a pioneer in using video to analyze and scrutinize. His work ethic is stuff of legend. Baseball lifer Jack McKeon, who drafted Gwynn in 1981, says no one worked harder than Gwynn.
According to many, Gwynn was a better person than he was a baseball player. That seems impossible. But then again, so do his on-field accomplishments that will forever be remembered and imitated by an entire generation.